Deus Ex is the first game where I’ve been disappointed due to the writing. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since Portal was the first game where I loved it almost entirely because of the writing, but you have to remember: I’m an Atari 2600 kid, back when videogames were just blocks and bleeps and bloops. It’s odd, to see how videogames have evolved to the point where the gameplay can be 80% satisfying and yet the experience falls critically flat because I just don’t care about the characters.
The problem with Deus Ex is that 90% of its story is told via hacked emails, which – as I’ve bitched about before – are in low-contrast fonts that are too small to read comfortably on my screen. So I wound up skimming them, even though I’m usually the guy who reads everything. And if you don’t do the homework, then the plot becomes a barrage of OMG PLOT TWISTS where characters you barely know interact with story arcs you really haven’t been introduced to.
The fatal flaw here is that you don’t really interact with the main characters – or, rather, you have one or two conversations, but they’re not characters so much as transparent mouthpieces for the three core philosophies of the game (ZOMG MECHANICAL AUGMENTATION IS BAD!!! vs TECHNOLOGY IS THE LULZ!!!! vs CHOICE! CHOICE! CHOICE!). It’s like a live-action Matrix: Reloaded game where you don’t talk, you just exchange diatribes.
To make things worse, you never encounter the lead characters doing anything interesting: they’re always off on the side between missions, talking to you about what they didn’t do. It’s like if James Bond encountered Goldfinger in between action sequences and Goldfinger just stood there, helplessly, denying everything he did and never actually tying you up or killing all his competitors on-screen or even showing off his spiffy new chapeau-wielding henchman.
That’s not a cool villain. It’s a shadowy manipulator, sure, but it’s not satisfying.
So I knew nothing about them except what they represented. And the guys I was actually supposed to beat up, the boss villains? I knew less than nothing about, so I didn’t care when I beat them. A particularly egregious example: From Wikipedia, I learn that one of the main villains is supposedly paranoid, since “being one of few women in a male-dominated profession has strongly influenced her worldview, making her cautious of everything around her.”
That would have been interesting to see. Too bad Deus Ex didn’t bother to tell me.
As such, I didn’t have any real stake in the plot. This is a game where the cut-scenes annoyed me, because the characters were all like, “OH MY GOD, YOU REALIZE THIS MEANS – ” and I was all like “Yes, yes, can you just drop me in the next room of crates so I can kick some ass?”
This “Philosophy over action” applies to, sadly, the end credits. You have four choices you can make at the end, and they all seem cool…. except you don’t actually find out what happened. Instead, you get a big windy speech justifying why it was so great you pushed the RAH TECHNOLOGY button, and never see whether pushing humanity towards cyborgization had any effect, positive or negative. Look, fuckers, I don’t care about proposing augmentation, I care about knowing whether I made a difference. Like, you know, happened in the first Deus Ex.
(Also, the speech makes a big deal about how you’re a moral man who cares about people. That makes sense for me, since I spent much of the game going out of my way to knock people out and not kill anyone. Those who went through the game as a buzz saw through guard-skulls, however, will find a monologue that is laughably and provably wrong.)
Furthermore, the philosophical choices are weighted so ridiculously that it’s imbalanced. On the one hand, you have the anti-augmentation side, who wants to beat you up and steal your lunch money and kill anyone who has contact lenses. On the pro-augmentation side, you have every power-up that ever existed, giving you all the cool features that allow you to super-soldier your way to goodness. Why would anyone be anti-augmentation by the end of the game? There’s absolutely zero attempt to show us any disadvantages to having these augs (aside from the vulnerabilities that the antis exploit, and that’s not what they’re concerned about).
It’s like having an entire faction in the game be anti-puppy. IF WE RELY ON MERE CANINES TO PROVIDE US WITH LOVE, WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO HUMANITY?
It’s not all a wasteland – I did care about my pilot, and they were smart enough to put her in danger – but in the end, no matter what good choices or bad choices you make, you get the same damn ending. So why did I make choices, then, if it has no real consequence? Shoot the whores, man, save them, they’re all ultimately worthless.
The gameplay is pretty good, too, except that the augmentation tree is a distinct disappointment. Some of the tech trees are flat-out useless. I played a stealth player, and literally left the whole “stealth” tree behind because all it did was show cones of vision on tiny sub-screen I wasn’t watching. Likewise, the invisibility cloak burned up so much energy that I never bought it. I finished the game with five upgrade slots completely unused just because I didn’t want them. That’s the sign of one stunted tech-tree.
You want to know what breaks the game? You put all your points into hacking. That’s it. Once you hack, you get bonus experience every twenty feet, you take over turrets, you shut down cameras. Hacking is so superior to everything else that there’s literally no reason not to master it, even if you’re a psycho killborg.
Part of the problem is that you have batteries that fuel your powers… But that battery, while it recharges slowly on its own, never recharges beyond one bar. You can buy extra bars with augmentations, but if you want to fill those bars, you need to use power-up items. Which is dumb. It means that the items that use energy become a liability, unless you can get usage out of them with one bar – otherwise, you’re burning precious power-up items. This nerfs the cloak, nerfs the special sight requirements, and everything else. Why spent slots on augmentations that are hard to use and consume resources when you can just HAXX0R?
Don’t get me wrong – Deus Ex is a fun game. Near the end, you feel like a complete badass. In terms of gameplay, it completely absorbed me.
But I shouldn’t be irritated by a cutscene. I was. STOP INTERRUPTING MY GUARD-CHOKINGS WITH YOUR STUPID STORY, DEUS EX.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.